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Reptile imprinting: is it possible?

In animal behavior, imprinting is a form of learning that allows hatchlings and newborns to recognize themselves as members of a given species by observing their parents during the critical first days of life. Imprinting mostly occurs in bird species and a few mammals, but there’s no such a thing as imprinting for reptiles and lizards. Some species of reptile, particularly lizards and turtles, may grow to bond with their owners after regular handling and care, but that is different from imprinting.

Lizard hatchlings do not imprint on humans, sadly.
Wall Lizard hatchling. Photo courtesy of Javier Ábalos.

Can lizards get attached to their owners?

Most reptiles learn to recognize people who care for and handle them on a regular basis, and they will eventually recognize them as a trusted source of food. That’s more of an opportunistic relationship than a form of bonding, though. Only a few intelligent lizard species, such as bearded dragons, tegu and monitor lizards, do appear to bond with humans under the right conditions. Some caregivers have reported their pets showing interest in them even to the point where they would ignore food in favor of handling, which is unusual for all other reptile species such as snakes, which do not show any form of affection towards their owners no matter what.

Tegu lizards are reportedly affectionate and even cuddly when properly cared for, but this can only be achieved after months (or years) of handling, and it is not the same as imprinting. Hatchling and juvenile reptiles do not form immediate bonds with their parents (neither human nor biological), but will rather see them as potential predators and run away to hide. This is because in the wild it is not uncommon for adults to feed on babies on the same species.

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